This unfinished watercolour is thought to be a study for one of the dozens of literary illustrations that Turner designed during the 1820s and 1830s. The subject shown here is too vague to be conclusively linked to any of the finished vignettes. However, Jan Piggott has plausibly suggested that it may be a preparatory sketch for Ludlow Castle, Rising of the Water Nymphs circa 1834 (private collection),1 a watercolour illustration for Milton’s Poetical Works (1835).2 The final design, which was engraved by Edward Goodall, depicts a scene from ‘Comus’ where a bevy of water spirits arises from the river with Ludlow Castle in the background.3 The nymphs appear as though on the sweep of a wave in the left-hand corner, and their curvaceous forms seem to be mirrored by the pencil figures washed in blue in the bottom left of the vignette study. Furthermore, the blocky purple and peach shapes in the top right-hand corner appear to show the towers and crenallated battlements of a castle, albeit a different arrangement than that of the finished vignette.
Piggott has also suggested an alternative related subject,4 the watercolour illustration, Death-Boat of Heligoland circa 1835 (National Gallery of Scotland),5 a design engraved by Edward Goodall which Turner produced for Campbell’s Poetical Works (1837).6 However, the figurative details of the study appear more closely related to Milton’s graceful nymphs than the thrashing drowning victims and macabre capering skeleton of the Campbell vignette.
Turner made at least one other vignette study on the same board as he used here (see Tate D27657; Turner Bequest CCLXXX 140).
Andrew Wilton, The Life and Work of J.M.W. Turner, Fribourg 1979, no.1270.
Piggott 1993, p.96.
Piggott 1993, p.96.
Wilton 1979, no.1288; reproduced in colour in Mungo Campbell, A Complete Catalogue of Works by Turner in the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh 1993, p.63.
Inscribed by an unknown hand in pencil ‘CCLXXX 80’ bottom right